“The importance of EPSCoR funding is the development of students and student training. The amount of equipment this funding has brought to this small university has allowed us to do more research and get more students out in the field. It has brought equipment into classes, general biology labs, and allowed us to do extensive surveys in the intertidal and subtidal zones. It’s equipment I never dreamed of having six years ago.” — Jameson Chace, Salve Regina University
Coastal habitats and climate change
Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant program, Rhode Island researchers track and study the human toll on near shore species while training the next generation of scientists.
Against the backdrop of Goose Neck Cove, Jameson Chace, associate professor at Salve Regina University, introduced his freshman biology class to that day’s lab along the Newport, RI, coast.
Divided into groups, students would spend their afternoon rotating through fieldwork stations — dragging seine nets, sampling marine life, going out in boats to haul and survey traps, and recording data.
On hand to assist were David Borkman, a marine research associate at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and adjunct professor at Salve, and three undergraduate students who have trained with Chace and Borkman as Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURFs).
The day — warm and early September — and the location along Newport’s fabled Ocean Drive as it dips along the Atlantic were unmatched and not lost on the students, who marveled at their surroundings. For most, if not all, the hands-on experience offered a first look at what life might be like as a scientist.
Change at the trophic level
A self-described bird guy, Chace investigates how organisms respond to changes in the environment: “It’s the fundamental thing I do. My whole career has focused on examining how human impacts on the environment affect biological populations and communities, especially aspects of avian ecology.”
At the same time, as an educator, Chace devotes himself to training the next generation of scientists, selecting his projects through the lens of providing research experience for undergraduates at a small, liberal arts institution.
With these two guiding missions, Chace found RI NSF EPSCoR a natural fit when the grant program first began in the Ocean State five years ago. He already had been collecting data with his students since 2006 on winter sea duck distribution along the Newport Cliff Walk.
“Since the inception of this project, the question always was, why do we find some birds in some places and not others,” he says. “It was a classic habitat analysis. I’m convinced their abundance and distribution is mostly tied to food availability — that’s what the birds are in Newport for during the nonbreeding season.”
Teaching in the departments of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, and Environmental Studies, Chace tracks available food to document the link between birds and foraging locations. His surveys count the subtidal abundance of crabs, lobsters and small fish along the portion of Newport Neck that follows the Cliff Walk from Easton’s Beach to Goose Neck Cove.
Through RI NSF EPSCoR, the study focuses on projecting where the sea ducks might be, based on projected changes in resource abundance with climate change-influenced sea level rise, compared to where they are now. Chace’s near shore invertebrate study expanded beyond Newport Neck to Narragansett Bay during the summer of 2015, with a series of nine stations established between Dutch Island (about halfway between Jamestown and the URI Bay Campus) and Conimicut Point (about five miles south of Providence).
“We’re pretty sure that what’s going to affect invertebrates are changes in pH and in temperature,” Chace explains. “Going into upper Narragansett Bay gives us a chance to examine a wider range of temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH and algae growth, and see how these sea birds respond.”
Distribution and abundance of sea ducks — some of which breed in the high Arctic and winter here — are predictable, he explains. They line up according to the food available: Where there are more small fish, there are grebes and red-breasted mergansers; buffleheads and eiders tend to go where there are the most crustaceans.
Surprisingly, Chace notes, he and his students have found that loons (fish eaters) are often found where crab abundance is high, perhaps because they feed primarily on crabs during the winter, or possibly because where there are crabs, there are also many small fish. This winter, he and students will examine the foraging ecology of loons more closely.
Of particular interest among the crabs, the invasive Asian shore crab is the most abundant in the intertidal zone and, thus, likely has become a major food source for the wintering flocks. This raises a subset of questions because although there are more Asian shore crabs, they take more work to eat. Will any crab do? Does abundance trump substance?
Still, in the past, these birds probably used to eat rock crabs and green crabs, which were more abundant then than they are today. Now, their feasting on Asian shore crabs indicates foraging flexibility in a changing environment. The unknown, however, which Chace and Borkman are studying, is how warming water and rising sea levels will affect the food web and trigger a cascading impact on the ecosystem.
A rising sea level alone will alter the habitat of near shore invertebrates as Newport’s coastline of concrete, boulders and sea walls, put in place to guard against the advancing sea, will become part of the new subtidal zone. What was once a nice pebble or cobble beach becomes bedrock. These changes in habitat affect species abundance and distribution.
The following are among the key questions the RI EPSCoR research seeks to answer: If the sea level rises one or two meters, what will that change? How will it affect distribution of species — who will stay, who will go and who will move in? What happens when a food source changes dramatically?
EPSCoR makes research, training possible
Situated on 80 acres among Newport’s historic mansions and overlooking the Cliff Walk and Easton Bay, Salve Regina University is one of nine RI EPSCoR partner campuses, six of which are primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs).
For Chace and his PUI colleagues, this means shouldering a large teaching load while conducting research without the benefits that come with a research institution. RI EPSCoR funding helps level the field and provide opportunities. Through support of the NSF grant, Chace has secured equipment and undergraduate research experience that might not be available otherwise, both of which, in turn, allow the pursuit of science.
“The importance of EPSCoR funding is the development of students and student training,” Chace says. “The amount of equipment this funding has brought to this small university has allowed us to do more research and get more students out in the field. It has brought equipment into classes, general biology labs, and allowed us to do extensive surveys in the intertidal and subtidal zones. It’s equipment I never dreamed of having six years ago.”
Additionally, Chace works with the RI NSF EPSCoR Track-2 watershed project, a three-state initiative with Rhode Island, Delaware and Vermont that he has folded into his ecology class.
Beyond critical support for student research, the EPSCoR program in Rhode Island also sets the stage for collaboration. Chace and Borkman offer a classic example of this as they worked together the past two summers, mentoring SURF students and leveraging their talents with near shore invertebrates (Chace) and marine phytoplankton (Borkman) to the benefits of both students and science. During the academic year, students gain from the two scientists working together through their research and teaching.
“David Borkman is a fantastic asset to our department and university,” Chace says. “He’s an expert in algae and he’s also been involved in teaching here and mentoring students interested in careers in marine biology. It’s a great collaboration for our students and our research.”
Borkman says he, too, gains from working with the undergraduates, comparing the experience to tilling a garden and bringing up to the surface that which gets buried over time.
“Working with the students is a really positive part of it,” he explains. “If you do something for a while, you start to take stuff for granted. The students are interested in the science and eager to learn. Teaching makes you go back, reexamine and think about things.”
As the Bay changes
Borkman says the work with Chace has allowed him to characterize the phytoplankton in the Bay and compare current species composition and abundance levels to decades past, research that adds to the long running URI GSO weekly surveys of the Bay that date back to 1959.
Phytoplankton, single cell organisms that average 10 to 30 micrometers in size (about 10 small phytoplankton cells side by side fit on the width of a human hair), grow geometrically, fueled by light and nutrients. Abundance levels offer an indicator of the Bay’s health and can measure the payoff of preserving and maintaining a vital state resource that wields tremendous economic and recreational benefits.
“Climate change is the big question,” Borkman says. “It’s easy to look at one thing, but there is a lot happening at the same time.”
On the one hand, sewage treatment plants and tying into wastewater systems have resulted in a cleaner Bay. On the other, warming water alters the ecosystem, shifting species and altering the food web. That leaves researchers with the complex task of teasing out the effects of coinciding factors.
Whereas aerial views from satellites efficiently map abundance, location and color of phytoplankton, identifying specific species by eye, water sample by water sample, can yield key details and inform scientists about the Bay’s status.
Coldwater groups, for example, disappear. Unexpected others turn up. Once dominant species become more sporadic. Decades of research to track these changes build the framework for policy decisions, from treating sewage to managing fisheries, guiding development, and preparing for climate change.
“My interest is to see what is happening and get it documented,” Borkman says. “We want to try to gauge the impact of human activity, whether it’s sewage disposal or climate change, in the face of what is the normal variability.”
From his perspective, based on the detailed documentation throughout time, Borkman espouses a hopeful outlook for the Bay. Long-term trends are heading in the right direction; the water is clearer. Phytoplankton abundance in most areas is at a good level. The investment in addressing water quality has paid off with significant improvement.
But, to know that and direct the course of human activity, to validate the cost benefit of investing in our natural resources, scientists like Borkman and Chace must check the pulse of the Bay, collect the data and chart the ebb and flow of marine life.
“You have to go out and look,” says Borkman. “You have to be out in the field. A lot of this is basic research, but the implications are far reaching.”
Story and photos by Amy Dunkle